August 19, 2015. I woke up to a brightness filling the tent. We chose not to put the rain fly up and now the early blue morning light filtered through the thin clear mesh and warmed our faces. Seth and I woke up around the same time and began getting camp together for our long march out. We had decided to bail our attempt at Mt. Redoubt, Spickard, and the Mox Peaks and instead head down Redoubt Creek’s drainage toward Ross Lake for our resupply.
I trotted down to the lake to fill the Jetboil get breakfast started, while Seth looked over toward the north face of Bear Mountain in hopes of spotting the climbers from the previous night. He found them, up on a ledge with one guy leading and his partner hidden by a cleft in the rock, out of sight. We watched them and their thin orange rope until our eyes burned and played tricks on us. We yelled out, “Good morning!” but heard no reply except for the echoes bouncing back across the dark blue-green valley bowl.
After our breakfast was finished, we started packing up the gear. Something caught my eye. High above us, close to where we had decided to head down to Bear Lake the previous day, a dark mass was lumbering along the rocks. I grabbed my binoculars and adjusted the focus. A black bear. A huge black bear that looked to be about 400 lbs. The bear caught wind of us and we watched through squinted eyes and binoculars as he turned his light brown snout toward us. Although he was about a half mile up the slope from us, we readied our two cans of bear spray and watched nervously to see what it would do. It continued its lumbering gait traversing across the rocks and heather before disappearing behind the ridge to the west. We breathed a sigh of relief and finished taking down the tent and packing our backpacks. Just as we were finishing up, we heard a low grunt from a thicket behind us. I whirled around, and we started yelling at the trees, convinced that another bear was watching us. Nothing charged out toward us so we finished stretching, hefted our packs onto our backs, and headed east. We gave the thicket a wide berth and kept nervously watching our back.
We climbed up toward the saddle and climbed over more immense boulders. Pikas screeched, small birds darted around, and the climbers across the valley from us slowly climbed higher.
We reached the saddle and began plotting our descent into the wild, unexplored valley that Redoubt Creek drained into. The plan was to find a good line down the initial rocky slope and follow it all the way down past the scree fields, the boulder fields, the heather and grass, the streams, and into the timberline. From the timberline, we would simply follow the trees down to the creek and follow the creek all the way down to where it met with the Beaver Creek Trail 4 miles later. On paper it sounded good (if not rough) but the reality was close to a nightmare.We would lose about 1000 feet of elevation for every mile we descended…and we had 4.5 miles of bushwacking to go.
We said a prayer and began our descent. I led and we carefully picked our way down the rocky slope. A bright splotch of snow was still surviving in the mid-August heat and I headed toward it. From the snow patch, I hiked through knee high wildflowers, bear grass, and mountain heather toward the skinny krummholz.The sun was roasting us as we descended, and I wrapped my head in a light shemagh from Israel to avoid getting burned. Once I was almost at the treeline, I waited to regroup with Seth and Christian. We took a snack break and stretched out our aching muscles. Then we entered the forest after getting separated, regrouping, and getting separated again. The flora and slope angle made it remarkably easy to lose each other and we often had to use our whistles to find each other.
The forest descended so rapidly that we were clinging to the tops of trees below us and making ample use of the vegetative belay system with our ice axes digging into rooty soil or hooking onto tree trunks and branches. Occasionally, we would emerge into an opening where one of the many streams trickled down the mountain on its course toward joining the waters of Redoubt Creek and we would be greeted with a stunning view of the valley accompanied by a steep drop at the end of the slippery, slimy rock that the stream slithered down. Those were nerve-wracking moments.
Unlike our ascent to the ridge line on Day 3, there was water all around us. Besides the small streams of snowmelt, there was an immense, unnamed waterfall rushing down into the valley from Redoubt Glacier, high above us. Further down the slope, we encountered hundreds of tangled vine maples that slowed our progress considerably. We got whipped by them. Literally and figuratively. Ours legs got banged up and scratched on rocks, thorny devil’s club, and prickly pines. Our bottoms were dirty from slipping and sliding down sketchy slimy sections of old waterfalls and our hands bled from clutching brambles to prevent falling into the abyss.
We followed a small stream bed for the latter half of the descent since it was clearer than going through the thickets. We ducked past the stringy clumps of stinging nettle and finally clambered onto a small scree slope with a bear trail (or other large animal trail) at the bottom. The vegetation was snapped and bent and the air smelled wild. We practiced our bear calls and made as much of a ruckus as we could, banging on rocks with our ice axes and shouting things like, “Heyyy Bear….Hey!” and “Ice cold bear… Five ninety-five!” as we followed the trampled path.
To our left roared Redoubt Creek with a steep ten foot embankment on either side. We finally exited the tumultuous, wild slope and entered into a chin-high field of purple fireweed. Its small, white cotton-like seeds flew around our faces like dust motes in an empty, deserted hotel room and the tall green stalks covered the numerous hidden holes that dappled the ground. We clumped through the fireweed and took a much-needed break.
I brought my pack down to a gravel bar and sat down on it to eat handfuls of dried fruit and trailmix. The sun was high above us and the view of the peaks above us were incredible. The Ridge of the Gendarmes guarded our east and to our south the valley opened. Dense thickets of alder and maple were ahead of us and piles of dry wood lay in twisted snarls along the creek. I took my shoes off and iced them in the creek, marvelling at the clear, cleanness of the fresh water. I filtered water with my Sawyer Mini-Filter and gathered the team. It had taken us 5 hours to go 1.5 miles.
We shouldered our packs back onto our aching shoulders and followed the creek downstream. We vanished into an alder thicket, Seth leading and Christian in the rear. All that could be seen of each other was the tops of the alders dancing and springing around. We forded the creek and scrambled among the boulders on the other side. After rounding the border of the rock-strewn slope and a small copse of trees, we entered a vast meadow. The yellowing grass reminded me of places in Alaska with vast meadows surrounded by immense mountains, and we trekked across it thoroughly enjoying the simplicity of stepping one foot in front of the other without having to deal with slippery slopes and steep drop offs.
We crossed the creek again and entered the forest as the creek dropped down into a rocky canyon. We crawled across fallen trees and mossy logs and slipped on the pine covered forest floor. Eventually, we came to an awful section where a waterfall coming down from the Ridge of the Gendarmes joined the rushing waters of Redoubt Creek. We tried to continue above the waterfall, following a contour line since it didn’t seem too bad, and hiked up as close as we could get from the forest. Blocking our way was a thicket of alders, vine maples, and firs. I volunteered to lead it and scouted for a route down to the water. I set my pack down on a log while Seth and Christian watched, and started pushing my way through the interlocking thicket. Then I had a strange feeling. I looked down. Fifty feet below me, past the network of interlocking tree branches, was the ground. I had walked out onto the top of another forest that was before the drainage. I fought down the rising panic inside me and scrambled back through the branches to rejoin the guys. With that route nixed, we abandoned the idea of crossing that watercourse and chose to head back through the pine forest and try to cross Redoubt Creek.
Unless we wanted to hike all the way back to where we had crossed the creek near the meadow and try to blaze a trail through the woods on that side, we would have to downclimb a 40 degree pine covered slope to the only flat spot where Redoubt Creek pooled after rushing through the rocky canyon and before it spilled over and became a 100 foot waterfall that then merged with the waterfall from the Ridge of the Gendarmes. We began our downclimb, glissading and self-arresting with our ice axes down the slippery pine floor toward the creek. We reached the creek and looked for a safe spot to ford. If we slipped and lost control, we would merely be carried over the 100 foot falls to an unfortunate death.
Holding a safety line, I went first while Seth belayed me. Packs were unclipped and the knee-high water was cold in my already-soaked boots. Once I was across, Christian came over and then Seth. We high-fived and began another forested trek on the other side of Redoubt Creek.
Spongy moss helped make the wild woods seem friendlier as the sun sunk behind the distant ridges, and we began to wonder where we would we camp for the night. We came to a thicket of vine maples and blackberry bushes and followed a game trail through it before rejoining the rocky embankment along the western side of Redoubt Creek. It was not quite dark enough to turn our headlamps on by the time we forded the creek and set up camp on a gravel bar. We had only gone about 2.5 miles today and yet it was more nerve wracking than our Day 3 bushwack.
We finished setting up the tent sans rainfly and made dinner. We would now be two days late getting to Ross Lake Resort for our resupply, but we were definitely getting what we wanted – an Adventure. Somewhere to our southeast a wildfire burned. The Perry Creek Fire that had forced us to change our original plan at the ranger station and made us go down Redoubt Creek. We were about 3.5 miles from its last known location to us, which was made known to us five days ago. We fell asleep without much thought of it…
And woke up to an orange sky, the smell of smoke, and a smoky haze filling the valley below us.